From Emo to Dad Rap: Atmosphere’s Graceful Ageing Process in a Youthful Sport
This article was originally published on Respect My Region
“Somebody’s gonna start calling us ‘Dad Rap’ unless I jump on that first.”
Sean Daley figured it out the first time around: if you’re one step ahead of your critics, they can’t corner you. In the early days of Atmosphere, when the group shrunk from a five-piece to a duo, the hip-hop community was quick to other (and oftentimes dismiss) him and beatmaker Anthony Davis for identifying as “Emo Rap.” This was before the term became commonplace — we’re talking about the pioneers who stomped so the kids today could fly. Unlike current times, however, not everyone thought being vulnerable was badass in the 2000s.
Minnesota natives Daley and Davis, better known as Slug and Ant respectively, have functioned in a lane of their own throughout their career. From the jump, their claim to Emo Rap set them apart as “alternative.” Because hip-hop is so deeply rooted in its traditions, especially in the earlier days, they had to put in extra effort to prove themselves.
“It created an image of who I was that preceded seeing or meeting me, so when Atmosphere started getting tagged as Emo Rap, it did alienate us,” Daley recalls. “It made people go, ‘I don’t fuck with that … that’s for college chicks.’”
It certainly didn’t help when the pair performed at the Warped Tour for three consecutive years from 2003–05, just when their validity was being questioned the most. In hindsight, though, such overlaps played a massive role in helping hip-hop break into the mainstream. From the Wu-Tang Clan headlining metal festivals to Jay-Z releasing a collaborative album with Linkin Park, blurring boundaries proliferated the fanbase of what was still a developing culture. Atmosphere successfully took emo, a category that used to be exclusive to rock, and gave it a whole new identity within the hip-hop domain.
Creative reappropriation takes resilience, and its larger impact mustn’t be overlooked. Today, emo and punk have become dominant themes in hip-hop. As the world becomes increasingly receptive to the many facets of the craft—something Atmosphere contributed greatly toward normalizing—Slug’s songwriting has taken on a more tender form.
“It’s now finally okay for me to write the song that says, ‘Hey, be gentle with yourself,’” he explains. “We’re in an era where you can do that, too. You couldn’t really make that song in 2002 or 2003, when 50 Cent was the biggest thing in the world, because people didn’t wanna hear you say that.”
Over the past decade, Daley's tone has changed as he now speaks from a place of experience rather than innocence. This is precisely why Atmosphere began calling themselves Dad Rap. In a sport as stubbornly youthful as hip-hop, they stand out since they choose to embrace ageing with open arms.
Today, the two-piece isn’t as aggressive as they once were, yet they haven’t lost their flare. The difference is that they’re no longer on the offense. Hip-hop demands that its participants build themselves up because it was born from struggle; for this reason, beef and toughness have become defining attributes of the culture. Having done his time as a hard-headed MC, Daley now prefers being a force of positivity, even when he’s being critical of the world around him.
“There are ways for me to still address the things that irritate me or that make me angry without hurting any specific person’s feelings,” he says. “But I can still talk about traits of humanity that I don’t appreciate because I’m a complainer.”
At 50, Daley has fully committed to being a fatherly figure in hip-hop. Thick aviator eyeglasses, soul-patch mustache and anecdotes prefaced with “I’m old” all take the form of a caring and considerate gentleman … plus he got bars. Pondering over this shift in character amid the isolated unrest of the coronavirus lockdown is what birthed Atmosphere’s upcoming album.
So Many Other Realities Exist Simultaneously, which is set to arrive on May 5, was recorded entirely in sequence unlike their previous projects. This means that the first song we hear on the tracklist is the first song they conceived, allowing Daley to pattern each cut per the arc of life — death, rebirth, eulogy, etc. This self-imposed challenge was the product of an emphasis on consuming music as a comprehensive body of work. Because Slug and Ant grew up listening to music on vinyl, they encourage fans to engage with their material in succession instead of fragments.
“The technical challenges played into the art,” Daley says about the experience he wishes to offer his listeners. “It’s kind of important to me if you can consume it as a piece of vinyl because each side is its own thing.”
Funnily enough, the record’s final song, “Sculpting With Fire,” was also its first single. By releasing some tracks out of order despite their meticulous sequencing in the studio, Atmosphere separated the rollout from the album release. In other words, the singles have had separate lives — a gap year of sorts after which they will return to their family.
In a parallel world, Daley summoned New York artist Michael Alan to materialize the cover art song-by-song. As the duo finished each track, they’d send it over to him so the piece could take shape alongside the tracklist. As the album came to fruition, so did its multilayered visual twin.
“People who’re all about the final product” and “people who’re all about the process” — these are the two personalities Daley bounces back and forth between as a creator. He’s been trying to find a balance and believes that the forthcoming record is his best attempt at it thus far.
Atmosphere have come a long way since their angsty Emo Rap days. Through Dad Rap, they’ve settled into their role as a guiding light in modern hip-hop. Slug and Ant have always had the wit to distinguish themselves from their peers while exploring serious subjects. In their 25-plus years together, they have laid the foundations for two separate paths that broaden with each passing year. Though they’ve managed to tastefully embellish their deeply personal output with a protective and cautionary perspective, Atmosphere’s humility remains their most commendable trait.
“Always remember to be gentle with yourself,” Daley says. “And also remember to take credit for getting there ... because it’s just music.”